We could always tell when Mum was getting ready to leave us. The days leading up to her absence would be marked by a frenzy of cleaning, cooking, tidying and organising.
Once, I asked her where she was going. She grinned and said, 'Just a night out with the girls.'
'Can I come too?' I asked, but without any real expectations.
'One day. When you're older.'
'That depends on when you're ready. You'll know.'
She gave me a look that choked the words in my throat.
Next time she went AWOL, I asked Dad if he was worried about her. 'No,' he said. 'Your mother can take care of herself. She'll be back tomorrow morning. Or maybe the day after.' And she was. She always came back. We'd find her at breakfast, pale, her hair a mess of tangles and dirt under her nails, her mouth smeared with dark red lipstick.
'Don't you mind?'
'No. I’ve always known she has a wild side. It was one of the first things I loved about her.' He stared out into the darkness beyond the window, the light from the full moon giving his face a bluish cast. He never closed the curtains when she was out. 'I tried to rein her in once, but she's not for taming.'
I didn't think there was anything strange about her behaviour until I was a teenager. My friends, straining against rules and restrictions, would moan endlessly about their boring parents. When I told them about Mum's regular absences, they laughed and said I was lucky, they wished their mum was like that. Except for Ashina. She came up to me later and whispered, 'My mum does that too.'
We compared dates and concluded our mums must be out on the town together. Her dad was more anxious than mine, though – he stayed awake all night waiting for his wife to come home; Ashina could hear him pacing about downstairs.
Last night Mum went out again. Dad and I were watching a late-night film when the doorbell rang. The man on the doorstep was agitated, flapping about like a wounded pigeon, running his fingers through his hair until it stood up in hedgehog spikes.
‘Sorry, sorry. You don’t have a dog, do you? I've just hit one with my car. It ran out in front of me and didn't give me a chance to brake. Great big shaggy thing, it was. It ran off down the path beside your house. I'm worried it might be badly injured.'
Dad said not to worry, he'd go out and look for it. I was desperate to go with him to search, but he told me to go to my room and not to come out until morning. He was pale and his hands were shaking, but I knew the matter wasn't up for debate.
The next morning, Mum was sitting at the kitchen table, in her usual dishevelled state. When I hugged her, she smelled strange – a new scent of mud, meat and musk that made me dizzy. She handed me a cup of black coffee and asked me to take it up to the spare room. Ashina's mum was sitting up in the bed, a sling supporting her left arm and a weeping graze on her cheek. I didn't ask what happened. I put the coffee down and backed out of the room, aware of her amber eyes watching me closely.
In the kitchen, Mum took my hands, pulled me close and sniffed my neck, my ears, and my hair. 'You can come with us next time,' she whispered. 'You're ready.'